If you’re concerned at all about your online privacy then the recent announcement from Microsoft, in response to the Article 29 committee in the European Union, that it will be lowering IP logging on Bing will come as welcome news. There has been some concern over Google’s policy of retaining such data, although they have recently reduced the time it keeps full IP addresses to nine months (but they still retain partial addresses after this date).
It certainly is a step in the right direction – with the change lowering the timeframe from 18 months – but we have to wonder whether it still isn’t going far enough. The search engine companies argue that the use of such data allows for more accurate search engine response algorithms, as it allows them to study trends of particular users over time, but why can’t we be allowed to opt out of this system altogether?
The use of such data not only allows for better commercial competition, but has also proven useful for law enforcement in various criminal cases over the past few years; and there is even talk of it being used in divorce proceedings and other civil cases between individuals. Of course, we always have to remember that search engines are private services provided by commercial enterprises – so we don’t really have any say in how they use our data. Even though this may be the case, it is nice to see that Microsoft feels it now makes commercial sense to advertise stronger personal privacy practices in an attempt to gain marketshare in the Google dominated landscape.
It’s something that most of us don’t even think about, but once you are aware of the fact it can make you think twice. As somebody who writes on a number of different topics, and sometimes does research on areas of society that are deemed unsavoury or illegal, it’s not pleasant to think that my research into things such as underworld gang activities might put me on a watch-list which could come back to haunt me even though there was no illegal act, or even an intention of an illegal act, being committed.
When I heard the news about Bing it did achieve the job that Microsoft intended it to – it made me consider using Bing as my search engine of choice when researching particular topics. It seems that Microsoft aren’t just listening to recent concerns coming from advisory boards in places such as the EU, but they are also doing a great job of distinguishing their new search engine from Google on the commercial battlefield.
Personally, I think that there is a very invasive danger involved in profiling individuals based on what kinds of phrases they put into search engines. Firstly, because we never know just why they want to look at such information to begin with; but also because such practices begin to quickly veer into ‘guilty until proven innocent’ territory, which undermines the very basis of personal liberty and freedom of expression that many of us hold dear.
What do you think about search engine privacy? Should we be allowed to opt out completely when it comes to having our personal search histories stored and used? Does the idea make you think twice about how you may search for information on the internet? Will it stop you from looking into information you are interested in, even if only for a purely educational purpose? Will this recent move make you use Bing over Google?
Hopefully, such a move by Microsoft will start some kind of consumer privacy war between search engine providers – a conflict that has the potential to improve our individual privacy a great deal when it comes to our time spent surfing the web.